Friday, December 30, 2011

The Family As Icon

A few years ago I remember hearing a homily about the Holy Family. Rather than addressing the beautiful strangeness of the iconic family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the primary emphasis was on their normality. "They were just a normal family, just like you and me," or something along those lines. Yes, just like us, the members of the Holy Family were only human.

I remember being a bit puzzled by this homily. Yes, it's true that the Holy Family was composed of human beings, just like any other human family. But were they really normal? Were they typical? My suspicion is that they were anything but. After all, both parents were visited by angelic beings on several occasions. And although their son was fully human, He was also fully...divine. So why emphasize the normality of this truly exceptional family?

In his 1994 "Letter to Families," Pope John Paul II expresses what I think, to a certain extent, is at risk in  this treatment of the Holy Family. He says:

"Unfortunately various programmes backed by very powerful resources nowadays seem to aim at the breakdown of the family. At times it appears that concerted efforts are being made to present as "normal" and attractive, and even to glamourize, situations which are in fact "irregular". Indeed, they contradict "the truth and love" which should inspire and guide relationships between men and women, thus causing tensions and divisions in families, with grave consequences particularly for children. The moral conscience becomes darkened; what is true, good and beautiful is deformed; and freedom is replaced by what is actually enslavement."

What struck me as dangerous about the assertion that the Holy Family was "normal" was that the modern definition of the normal family has been dramatically altered. As Blessed John Paul II states, irregularity is now considered the norm. Just watch a few modern sitcoms and it's obvious. Although family situations like same-gender parents are obviously irregular from a Catholic perspective, they aren't necessarily considered to be out of place from a secular standpoint. In fact, a refusal to tolerate these arrangements and label them as acceptable may be one of the few modern vices, or to put it less "religiously," weaknesses.

What is even more frightening about this change is what Blessed John Paul II refers to in his homily: that is, that "what is true, good and beautiful is deformed..." The irregular instances that demonstrate the breakdown of the family are considered not only to be acceptable, but also desirable and attractive. Truly happy families are looked down upon with scorn.  After all, any family who seems that happy must have some dark, deep secret, right? We are unable to accept the beautiful as it is. We delight more in the twisted perversions that lie beneath the appearance of beauty. Horror movies wouldn't be nearly as popular if this weren't the case.

The tendency to shrink away from beauty and perfection in the religious sense manifests itself in more subtle ways, too. I, for one, feel enormous peer pressure to present my family as normal. Ask anything else of your family and you'll probably be called pretentious or snobbish. Catholics in particular must be on guard against this mindset. After all, are we not called to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect? Here's a story to illustrate my point. My husband and I chose a little-known Scots Gaelic name for our firstborn daughter. Although her name does have symbolic significance, she is not named after a canonized saint. When Catholics ask if there is a saint with the same name, my husband will often reply, "Not yet." The first time he said this, the questioner (who also happened to be a Catholic) was absolutely horrified. After all, he said, who are we to hope that our children will one day be saints?

And yet isn't that what we should hope for them? To be saints, to be the intimate friends of God, is what should define the family. It is what should motivate all our actions, words and thoughts. The Holy Family was, after all, "only human." But this does not simply normalize sanctity; rather, it elevates our humanity. This elevation is a calling, something to which we as families must respond. In a perfect world--in the New Creation--the Holy Family is, indeed, the norm. Until then, we less-than-holy families should strive not for normality, but for radical difference...yes, for perfection.

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